As a kid (and teen…and adult…), I dreamed of one day being a member of the Explorers Club. I mean, it only seemed natural they would want me. I’d done a pretty good job of exploring the hundred acres of undeveloped woods and caves comprising my grandfather’s property back in the day. Even still, with knowledge of the internal strife and mismanagement that has caused the glory to fade a bit, I still harbor images of reading accounts of the expedition of the Beagle whilst seated in an overstuffed leather chair surrounded by the artifacts of past adventures, occasionally interrupted by a mustachioed, pipe-smoking blowhard known only as “The Colonel” who will not shut up about the Yanomami. This summer, I got about as close as I’ll probably ever get to membership in the storied Club when I got to take a tour of their headquarters at 46 E 70th St. And while there was no The Colonel, and while crested blazers have given way to polo shirts, there was still a wonderfully cluttered array of random artifacts from past expeditions, many of them just sitting there — some of them still in common use — despite their historical provenance.
One of my early film memories, and still one of my favorite films, is The African Queen starring Bogart and Kate Hepburn. It was an early model for what I assumed my life would be, fueled as I was at the time by golden age adventure films and Illustrated Classics versions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Naturally, I would become a grizzled adventurer and lead the kind of life where I spent a lot of time drinking whiskey at the end of a jungle bar in a joint of French Colonial design and where I was known simply as “The American.” While my life hasn’t been without its adventures, both grizzled and clean-shaven, they’ve rarely attained quite the rarefied airs of dragging a boat through a leech-infested swamp, though I did once find myself caught in the middle of a massive frog migration in Paynes Prairie, Florida. In the summer of 2015, however, I came a little bit closer to my childhood (and later) dreams of living an African Queen adventure, thanks to the fact that the actual African Queen ended up, through a circuitous series of events, docked in Key Largo (a fittingly Bogart location) where it is available for tours of the canals and coastline.
The history of just about any spirit seems to follow a distinct pattern. A date for its creation is established, then half a dozen or more previous examples of the spirit follow in quick succession, making the original date more or less meaningless. This is because no one “invents” gin. Or whiskey. Or any of these things. The process of inventing gin is a long process of one type of spirit slowly evolving into another related spirit as tastes and supply changes and as distilling technology changes. Spirits aren’t invented. They evolve. So when something states that gin was invented in the middle of the 17th century by a Dutch physician named Franciscus Sylvius, what they’re really saying is that’s the year the history of gin become much easier to research than it had been in the past. Because even a cursory search will turn up gin, or at least its root form — genever — as far back as the 1500s, and you can bet that by the time something was written about, it had already been around for a good long while. Most of what we know about gin today involves England, but just about all history places the rise of gin in that nebulous region Americans know as, “Holland or The Netherlands or Belgium or something about the Flemish — where the hell is Flemland?”